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  • My Top Reads of 2018 – Comics

    What’s this, a Christmas Eve post full of fine things you might enjoy? It’s a Christmas miracle! And this time, it’s all about comics – my favourite ones of this year.

    Giant Days

    Fifteen years ago, I had a dull admin job for a small office of a vast multinational construction firm. I was the only admin in the office and could get through the work at speeds that dazzled my employers, thanks to the poor quality of their previous admins. This left me with a lot of time to kill. I disappeared down a rabbit hole of webcomics, where I stumbled across the work of John Allison. I binged my way through Bobbins and Scary Go Round, which at the time was his main ongoing project. It was a discovery that warped my sense of humour forever.

    Allison’s biggest current creation is Giant Days, made in collaboration with artists Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Julia Madrigal, with inks from Liz Fleming, lettering by Jim Campbell, and colour from Whitney Cogar. It’s a comedy-drama about a group of friends studying at Sheffield University, where they face the challenges of study, romance, friendship, and trying to work out how to be an adult human being.

    Giant Days is a wonderful book. Its stories are full of whimsy, its characters full of heart, its dialogue full of odd British humour. Allison’s tendency towards fantasy is almost entirely reined in in favour of slice-of-life storytelling, but the offbeat tone of his Tackleford stories remains. The art is uniformly vibrant and characterful, the ongoing story well balanced against the self-contained arcs of each issue, and I find myself utterly absorbed in these characters and their lives. A humour book about students might not sound like anything special, but I re-read every issue at least twice in the first week, bathing in its warmth and whimsy.

    Crowded

    Thought Bubble, the annual comics convention in Leeds, is a dangerous place. So many creators, so many comics, so much temptation to buy it all. This year, I was relatively restrained, but I’m very glad that I gave in to temptation and bought the first issue of Crowded.

    Crowded is set in the very near future. There’s a crowdfunding platform for assassins, an app to hire bodyguards, and celebrity streamers turning death into entertainment for their subscribers. When Charlie Ellison becomes the target of the biggest ever crowd-funded killing, she hires the only bodyguard she can get – the poorly rated yet incredibly competent Vita. If they can stay alive for thirty days then the hunt for Charlie will end. But Charlie’s a narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish and no understanding of the word “consequences”. Staying out of trouble is going to be tough.

    Crowded is written by Christopher Sebela, with pencils by Ro Stein, inks by Ted Brandt, colours by Triona Farrell, and letters by Cardinal Rae. It’s a darkly funny thrill ride that takes satirical jabs at modern culture without letting up on its tense storytelling. As the issues progress, the characters are revealing their depths, raising questions about who they are and how they got to this place in life. Even Trotter, the celebrity streamer using Charlie to maintain his channel’s upward momentum, has developed in five issues from a one-note caricature to a troubled man struggling to cope with his own monstrous persona.

    This is as close to Transmetropolitan as I’ve read in years, and that’s very high praise.

    The Wicked + The Divine

    As it heads into its final year, the latest masterpiece from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie goes from strength to strength. This is one of those creative pairings that always leads to something wonderful, as shown in Phonogram and Young Avengers. This latest series, with colours from Matt Wilson and letters by Clayton Cowles, might be their strongest yet.

    Every ninety years, twelve gods return in the bodies of young people. They live brief, glorious lives, only to burn out within two years. This time, they’re pop stars, their magic channeled through their music. They are stalked, studied, adored, and sometimes hated. They are the embodiment of fame.

    The Wicked + The Divine is a fascinating exploration of celebrity culture and the power of music. Where Phonogram gave magical power to the audience, WicDiv gives it to the artists, creating a very different dynamic. Given Gillen’s background in music journalism, there’s a lot here that’s clearly personal, but that doesn’t turn it into something maudlin or shoe-gazing. This year’s comics have revealed the dark secrets behind the pantheon, dragging the story ever deeper into tragedy while letting a glimmer of hope still shine. It’s nearly finished, so if you don’t like to risk a story that might never end, you’re in safe hands here.

    Gillen and McKelvie like to experiment from time to time, and that’s resulted in some unusual issues. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it’s great to see a creative team pushing the boundaries of the medium while maintaining the momentum of their story. This is a comic we’ll be talking about for decades to come.

     

    There you have it – my top comics picks this year. If you haven’t read them yet, I hope you give at least one of them a try. Now I’m off to indulge in mince pies, mulled wine, and all the other festive treats.

    Merry Christmas!


  • My Top Reads of 2018 – Fiction

    As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.

    The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker

    This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.

    Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.

    This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.

    I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.

    Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

    Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.

    Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.

    The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

    Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.

    Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.

    Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.

    I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.

    The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

    Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.

    At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.

    Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.

    I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.

     

    So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?


  • The Graffiti of Literature – Fan Fiction and Power

    Fan fiction is one of the most important forms in modern literature.

    I say this is an outsider, not someone with skin in the fanfic game. The last time I wrote fanfic I was seven years old and mis-spelling the name of Superted’s nemesis (or maybe inventing a new one in the form of Texas Qete). But as an active part of the science fiction and fantasy community, I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent, how beloved, and how important fanfic is.

    Because while it might just look like people having fun, fanfic is very much about the assertion of power.

    No, not like that, you filthy-minded, E L James reading monsters. I mean, if that’s your bag, by all means chain up the heroes and bring on the lube. But what I’m talking about is cultural power.

    Before I disappear down some postmodern, Marxist-flavoured rabbit hole of post-Foucault sociological bullshit, let’s start with the basics. What am I talking about when I say fan fiction?

    Fan fiction is playing with other people’s imaginary toys. It happens whenever somebody takes characters created by another writer, whether from a book, a film, or a TV show and makes up their own stories just for fun. Maybe they take one character or property and tell the stories they’d like to see. Maybe they mash several together, wanting to explore how Fievel from An American Tail would cope on the mean streets of The Wire. Maybe they throw in some extra characters of their own. It’s something that people do for pleasure, and for many it’s their first foray into fiction writing.

    This is distinctly different from hired writing on a licensed property. Sure, that also involves playing with someone else’s imaginary toys. But it’s done with a permission which can be withdrawn, it’s done professionally, and the results are officially recognized by the owner of the original work. Fanfic, on the other hand, is unofficial, unendorsed, and done just for the love of creation.

    So what does this have to do with power?

    To make that case, let’s start by talking about graffiti. When an advertiser pays to put an image up on the side of a building, that image is officially allowed. The advertiser uses their power and wealth to gain access to that space. They might or might not care about the product, the place, or the people who live there. The results may or may not be beautiful, but they can put that picture up because they already have power.

    When a graffiti artist puts their image up on the building, they do so without permission. They probably live in the area, but outsiders like multinational companies have far more power over their lived environment than they do. For better or for worse, graffiti becomes a way of asserting some power over that space, of making it theirs in the face of greater forces. The results may or may not be beautiful, but in putting that picture up, they fight back against the power.

    Fanfic is a lot like that. We all live in cultural environments shaped by big corporations and the properties they own. Most people have little power to shape that cultural landscape, including elements that are hugely important to them. But by using those properties without permission they can gain some control over their cultural environment. For a few pages at a time, they can make it theirs.

    Fanfic is the graffiti of literature.

    While I say this as a positive, I want to be clear – every piece of graffiti and fanfic isn’t by definition good. Both can end in ugly, misshapen messes that no-one but the artist should have to see. Either can be turned into a petty assault on cultural monuments that matter to others. But they can both be empowering, and in a world where we feel increasingly disempowered and disenfranchised by the big business and unresponsive governments, that’s a good thing.

    We are constantly told that big cultural institutions like Star Wars and the Marvel universe should matter to us, while also being reminded that we have no control over them. Fanfic flips that around. It gives us power over the things that matter to us. It’s a way of asserting power and transforming your environment, instead of letting big businesses have their way. That’s awesome.

    Does this mean I’m going to run off and write fanfic now?

    No. I have my own toys I’d rather play with. But I have huge respect for the people who get other people’s toys out, scuff them up, and leave them doing things we’ve been told they shouldn’t. They’re challenging the power dynamics of our culture, and that’s a great thing.


  • The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

    A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

    In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

    There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

    I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

    But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

    Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

    I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.


  • Not the Booker

    I don’t pay a lot of attention to literary prizes as they tend to ignore the genres I love. But the Guardian are currently running their alternative to the Booker and the long list includes some top quality sf+f. So if you enjoy that sort of thing then you might want to go look at their list in search of some more varied reading. I particularly recommend RJ Barker’s thrilling Age of Assassins or Jeannette Ng’s incredibly atmospheric Under the Pendulum Sun.


  • Dealing with Difficult Books – Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem

    The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.

    An Important Book?

    The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.

    As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.

    The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.

    Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.

    This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.

    My Reading Experience

    For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.

    This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.

    And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.

    Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.


  • History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

    Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

    The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

    A Powerful Read

    The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

    Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

    In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

    The Author’s Shadow

    Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

    Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

    Another Side of Humanity

    This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

    In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

    Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.


  • Living on the Edge – Emily Nation by Alec McQuay

    Cornwall might seem like an odd setting for a post-apocalyptic novel. But Emily Nation, Alec McQuay’s dark story of family and adventure, shows what a perfect place it is to show characters living on the edge.

    The Edge of History

    By their nature, post-apocalyptic novels are about living on the edge. The characters struggle to survive in broken cities and barren wastelands. Their societies reflect the jagged outer edge of history, a moment in which civilisation has collapsed, leaving us wondering if it can ever be rebuilt.

    That rebuilding is central to Emily Nation. Generations on from a destructive war, the assassin Emily Nation is living in Camborne, a town rebuilt from the ruins. Here, families live lives of relative peace, supported and protected by the likes of Emily. Life hangs by a tenuous thread, and the swiftness with which Emily wipes out her targets is a reminder of how quickly anyone could be snuffed out. But at least the citizens of Camborne are rebuilding with good intent.

    Down the road, life in Penzance is very different. Crime lords are rebuilding an economy based on brutality, prostitution, and forced labour. When Emily falls foul of one of these crime bosses, her friends and family suffer the consequences. The peace of Camborne is violated by outsiders, just as a reader’s sense of peace and security is violated by the post-apocalyptic ruins.

    Our future balances on a knife edge between prosperity and collapse into McQuay’s speculative ruins. And as the story unfolds, the future Camborne joins us there.

    The Edge of Britain

    Cornwall is a perfect setting for such a story because it is already a land on the edge. Laying at the south-western extremity of Britain, it is geographically isolated. Even once you get to Cornwall, it can easily take two hours to reach Penzance. Most of the county lies within easy travel of the coast, where rugged cliffs mark the edge of land and sea.

    Throughout its history, the people of Cornwall have found themselves living on the economic edge. The food and money provided by fishing are vulnerable to weather and the shifting shoals, fishermen vulnerable to storms. In the tin mines, men literally scraped a living from the dirt, again risking their lives for jobs that could vanish when a seam ran out, and that disappeared forever in the 1980s. The modern economy, dominated by tourism, offers the uncertainties of seasonal work.

    This creates a background note of anxiety that matches the breath-taking bleakness of the coastline and its abandoned mines. That anxiety fosters a conservatism that led many in Cornwall to vote to leave the European Union, despite the benefits it brought the county. Living on the edge means living in uncertainty, and that pushes people towards the comfort of a conservative outlook.

    The Forward Edge of Progress

    This is where Emily Nation takes a different path from its setting.

    The book embraces sexual diversity, starting with the protagonist’s marriage to another woman. It holds up alternative family units as just as valid as the traditionally mum, dad, and their own kids. It shows the systemic oppression that comes when desperate people accept desperate jobs, giving cruel economic masters power over them. Racism is exposed in all its hypocrisy through the struggles of mutant miners. The biggest driver for destruction is effectively the arms trade.

    The values of the book lie left of centre, at least in a British context. Having a gay female protagonist shouldn’t be unusual, yet is still a radical act, pushing genre fiction towards greater representation. The women in the book are just as capable as the men in exactly the same fields, and it’s not an issue. This is a progressive book that lives on the edge in a positive sense, at the forward edge of current reforms in society and representation.

    The Two Edges

    Like the blade that features prominently in its final act, Emily Nationhas two edges. One is a dark edge, exposing the insecurities that come not only in a post-apocalyptic future but in any part of the world where life and livelihoods are uncertain. The other edge shines brightly, slicing through traditional expectations, joining with other great speculative fiction in trying to set people free.

    Sure, this is an action story, one dominated by fights, chases, and explosions. But it’s an action story with a thematic richness, made all the more satisfying by its distinct and evocative setting.


  • Reading With Others

    There’s a certain paradox to reading. It’s about connecting to others, but we do it alone. When we read, we’re connecting to another person and their imagination, but not to someone we know.

    That’s part of why I like conventions, and why I’ve recently joined a Terry Pratchett book group. It’s also why I often read books people recommend to me, even if other books appeal more at first glance. I want to share my reading, to talk about it, to make connections.

    After all isn’t that what books are for?


  • One for the World Builders – Guns, Germs and Steel

    I’m halfway through reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a fascinating exploration of the physical causes behind history. In particular, it looks at why society developed so differently on different continents.

    I’m not flagging this up for history readers. Honestly, I’m behind the curve on this one, and most of you have probably heard of it already. But for the fantasy writers, especially those interested in world building, I really have to recommend this book. It looks at how physical geography can lead to differences in technology that shape almost everything in society. It’s a lesson in cause and effect on an epic scale. Thinking about how the world works in the way that Diamond does could help you to flesh out complex and convincing worlds. And like any good history book, it’s full of interesting examples to be stolen and adapted for imaginary worlds.

    Of course, history fans should read it too. This is a book that’s deeply shaped our perspective on history over the past twenty years. Much as I’m enjoying it now, I wish I’d got to it sooner.